Friday, June 6, 2014

Creative Career Choices: Relative ROI

   When teaching art I lean heavily on the vocational aspect of making art, such as there is (see "Over/Drawn" post), but it's just as much, if not more importantly a crucial aspect of a classical liberal arts education. And that of course is a thread that, hopefully, begins in early education and continues to unravel throughout one's chosen profession or career (note: it's never too late). The challenge is always to make it relevant: above and beyond the training in various techniques in, say drawing, there's an implied meta-lesson that the arts will translate into practical value-added lessons which in turn will potentially infuse every aspect of one's life. In theory that's gotta be worth something.
More below the fold...

   But as of late there's been a rash of dismal editorials (Hat-tip to Melissa) on the subject of the value - in a strictly monetized sense - of being a creator. There are a host of interrelated intangibles associated with the benefits of taking art classes, some of which there has been an attempt to quantify (see here and here). Unfortunately it appears that art teachers (educators in general) may be swirling down the drain of career choices and will wind up floating in the economic sewer just ever-so slightly on top of the layer of artists... even at the esteemed collegiate level.

They say and they talk about valuing education… My dad used to have an expression...‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.’ Don’t tell me you value women in the workplace and you don’t hire any women. And don’t tell me you value education and you won’t invest in looks as though they’ve decided that public education is not worth the investment anymore.” VP Biden
   Also in the periphery is the rising tide of massive open online courses, which - other issues aside - I don't think will do justice to the traditional hands-on intimacy of learning the arts, and this is compounded by the academic fallout from the fruition of a generation snared in the net of NCLB legislation and "teaching to the tests."
When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore. Take your choice! - Neil Gaiman
   As counterweight to these observations, consider the following couple of commentaries: the first, "How To Avoid Work," is a must-read posting on Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, who weaves together excerpts from William Reilly's 1949 book of the same title with quotes from Lewis Hyde, Neil Gaiman, Alan Watts, de Montaigne and others. And then juxtapose that against another excellent and equally insightful offering via The Onion:
Really, the biggest obstacle to overcome here—aside from every single obligation you have to your friends, family, job, and financial future—is you. And I’ll tell you this much: You don’t want to wake up in 10 years and think to yourself, “What if I had just gone after my dreams during those brief 30-minute lunch breaks when I was younger?” Because even if it doesn’t work out, don’t you owe it to yourself to look in the mirror and confidently say, “You know what, I gave it my best half-hearted shot”?
-->    Again, even though I treat the teaching of art overall with essentially a trade-school approach (functional acquisition of the basic skills etc.) I refuse to sugar-coat the stark reality of what the odds are in becoming a practicing, productive, long-term artist. Anyone can make art, but make a living at it? Not so many. It's a cynical observation born out from years of being in the field as a professional, and the question resurfaces all the time, everywhere in conversation and in the classroom. “How do I become an artist”: 1) marry a supportive (and financially stable) partner; 2) wait after working most of your life to retire; 3) be rich (trust-fund baby and/or lottery winner). And yeah, three options, equal odds, and that's about it folks. As an exercise, take a look around your local community and see how many musicians, authors and poets are making it solely on their trades, as in performances and publications, without delving into peripheral occupations (ex: giving lessons, teaching etc.).
   The challenge - and academic emphasis - as an art teacher is how to make it relevant and satisfying/enriching, not as a financially profitable enterprise. It's not terribly popular to flip over the rock and expose the dirty secret, but that's probably the biggest disservice to a student and a failure on the part of the teacher to not address it bluntly. See this excellent article, equally applicable to the visual arts, and ensuing comment thread for other perspectives and insights on the issue:
“In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.” - Ann Bauer "The Conversation We Never Have"
   Most artists essentially supplement their primary income with their art - arguably a glorified hobby at that stage - while working away in Limbo at a shit job (re: Harvey Pekar in American Splendor). Generally speaking the crappier it is, the better it will be to marshal inner reserves at the end of a long work day when one has to go home... and work ("There's a reason it's called artwork"). Conversely the degree of how much better and more enriching + fulfilling a day-job it is will equate to a corresponding drain (inspiration/motivation) on creating work after work. For example in my experience I've found it infinitely easier to draw late at night after a day of washing dishes, versus at a gig where you have to give it your all, such as teaching. Definitely there is a big difference in how well you can function at either extreme on the job the morning after a hard-core drawing session.
And as for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel?
"In the United States there are about 115,000 young people who graduate from college with art degrees every year - often with huge student loans to pay off. Calculating 10 years back, that means there's at least another million early-to-mid career artists on the market. There are about 6,500 art galleries and art dealers in the U.S., all with as many artists as they can handle." - Juri Koll, New York Times "The Cost of Being an Artist"

"To support a career in the arts in 2013 requires a cocktail of connections, financial support, talent and tremendous luck – and many of us just starting our professional lives are choosing more stable paths. [...] The result is a rising creative class largely determined by money." - Elena Sheppard, New York Times "The Cost of Being an Artist"
   Lastly, so as to not to leave on such a sour note (no thanks to Obama), there is some good news from the Wall Street Journal in an article by writer Daniel Grant called "What Does a Fine Arts Degree Get You? The Punch Line: Maybe a Job":
Of all arts professions, fine artists, writers and composers were found to be the happiest, because "the profession they have chosen gives them autonomy, and that makes them happy,"- Researcher Bruno S. Frey
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